By GARRY RAYNO, InDepthNH.org
The 2020 election is largely over after what feels like a long, difficult and very contentious campaign.
As the saying goes “elections have consequences” and that is certainly true in New Hampshire where the Executive Council, Senate and House flipped from Democratic control to Republican majorities.
Democrats began their two-year term with an ambitious agenda, but had marginal success guiding it to fruition.
The centerpiece was paid family and medical leave, made even more important in the pandemic that is sweeping the world, the United States and taking New Hampshire by storm during this second wave.
Polling by the University of New Hampshire’s Survey Center indicates widespread support for paid leave but translating that into successful legislation hit a roadblock when Gov. Chris Sununu vetoed the legislature’s attempts to establish the new program.
Not only did he veto paid leave, he called it an income tax — which it is not unless an employee’s share of an insurance premium qualifies — and successfully used it against Democrats to lengthen his coattails and bring enough GOP candidates along for the sweep.
During the next two years, supporters of paid family and medical leave should not hold out hope GOP lawmakers will miraculously change their mind and pass it.
Democrats backed the first significant increase in state education aid in a quarter century in the two-year budget by returning stabilization grants to their original level, and reinstating disparity aid and revenue sharing, programs ended or reduced by past legislatures.
More importantly lawmakers created an education funding commission to review the current system and to make changes to distribute more state aid to the state’s property poor communities, which have seen their property taxes skyrocket during the last decade and the educational opportunities diminish for their children.
The commission continues to work but did endorse a new vision of what constitutes an adequate education the state must provide under the state Supreme Court’s Claremont education decisions. The new plan uses student needs and community characteristics to determine the cost of an adequate education from school district to school district.
And the commission adopted some of the distribution changes that coincide with the new benchmark, but still needs to determine how to fund the new system.
A proposal the commission is studying would use a significantly higher statewide property tax to help level the playing field for school districts.
Embracing a hefty statewide property tax is not something Republican lawmakers are likely to endorse, nor have they shown much interest in addressing education funding.
The only GOP proposals in recent years have been constitutional amendments to end the courts involvement and to reduce stabilization grants each year with a goal of ending the subsidies.
People in property poor communities seeking changes to help provide more educational opportunities for their children are not likely to have their wishes realized with the incoming legislature.
During this two-year term, Democrats increased reimbursement rates for Medicaid providers, which are some of the lowest in the country.
Of particular concern during the pandemic are long-term care facility reimbursement rates, which industry officials believe contribute to the high death rates in New Hampshire nursing homes due to COVID-19.
While the state increased testing for staff and residents late last spring and into the summer, bringing down the fatality rate, deaths are ticking up again.
With the state facing a significant budget shortfall for the recently completed 2020 fiscal year, any increase in Medicaid rates are unlikely going forward with a Republican-controlled legislature and governor making the decisions.
The last budget was easier to craft than most because the state had a large revenue surplus providing the money to address often neglected areas like school funding and the mental health system.
There is no surplus to soften the blow for the next two years and the state will need to reduce spending this year to make up for the deficit last year.
State revenues are basically on target for the first third of the 2021 fiscal year, but the months of traditionally large business tax receipts lie ahead, so that could change.
The big exception to the state revenue picture is the rooms and meals tax which is the second largest source of revenue behind business taxes.
The hospitality industry has not bounced back like other areas of the economy and will probably experience more restrictions and not less as the coronavirus spreads rapidly across that state. Sununu this weekend said people should expect a significant spike in cases that could be as high as 1,000 a day by the end of the month.
But Sununu and the likely Republican leaders are already touting a cut in the state’s rooms and meals tax as a way to help the industry.
Let’s be honest, the hospitality industry does not pay the rooms and meals tax, you and I do going out to eat, staying at a hotel or renting a car.
The restaurants, hotels etc. receive a 3 percent commission to collect the tax for the state, so cutting the rate is not going to provide them more money, it will be less.
And the state at this point can ill afford to reduce revenue when the social service needs are great.
Cutting the rate of the rooms and meals tax makes for good soundbites and political rhetoric, but does not impact the consumer, and hurts businesses and the state’s revenue stream.
The governor has also talked about cutting the rates of the business taxes, which would further erode state revenues and limit state spending.
The budget that Sununu proposes in February and the Republican legislature will have to approve will be more draconian — with no or little new spending — than the one passed two years ago.
The last two years, the Democratically controlled legislature passed several bills to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour over a couple of years, from the current $7.25, but they were successfully vetoed by the governor.
Under Republican control there will be no increase in the minimum wage because Sununu does not want to see that bill on his desk.
Instead right-to-work legislation aimed at weakening unions will be front and center as the state GOP wants to keep the Koch brothers’ money flowing into their coffers.
Many of the ads run against Democratic candidates were paid for by Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity, which will say they were educational not political, but they were.
State workers do not have a master contract as negotiations with the executive branch have stalled and it does not appear there will be any movement any time soon.
Instead of an independent commission to redraw the state’s political boundaries, which passed twice but was successfully vetoed by Sununu, Republicans will once again redraw the political map in their favor.
The current map requires Democrats to receive about 52 percent of the vote to take control of the legislature and in some instances more than that.
The Democrats’ dream of finally drawing the political boundaries is now a nightmare as once again they face another decade in the wilderness although they outnumbered Republicans going into the general election. Independents outnumber both parties, however.
Much like the national landscape, the coronavirus creates a partisan divide in New Hampshire, with Democrats seeking greater state response, while Sununu has taken a more minimalist approach.
Democrats pushed for more money for nursing homes and other long-term care facilities, rental and mortgage help for the unemployed, greater unemployment benefits, more funding for health-care workers, etc. And they pushed for a mask mandate.
They lost a lawsuit challenging Sununu’s contention he could accept and expend federal CARES Act money without legislative approval.
The governor is not likely to encounter the same blow-back he had from Democrats in the next two years.
There will be no push for face mask mandates from the GOP-controlled General Court and in fact the leadership wants to resume meetings in the State House, something only the Senate did with social distancing in Representatives Hall once the legislature went back into session in June.
With the cases of COVID-19 exploding, most folks are not going to venture to Concord to watch their lawmakers.
The U.S. Supreme Court could also impact the current legislature if it overturns the Affordable Care Act, which would mean tens of thousands of state residents could be without health insurance, and Roe vs Wade, the federal court ruling allowing abortion.
Sununu received his wish and will have a Republican-controlled Executive Council so he will renominate Attorney General Gordon MacDonald as Chief Justice of the state Supreme Court.
One of the reasons Democrats did not agree to his nomination was his pro-life stance.
And if Roe vs Wade is overturned it will fall to the states to set their own abortion laws and regulations.
Yes, elections do have consequences.
Garry Rayno may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Distant Dome by veteran journalist Garry Rayno explores a broader perspective on the State House and state happenings for InDepthNH.org. Over his three-decade career, Rayno covered the NH State House for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Foster’s Daily Democrat. During his career, his coverage spanned the news spectrum, from local planning, school and select boards, to national issues such as electric industry deregulation and Presidential primaries. Rayno lives with his wife Carolyn in New London.
InDepthNH.org is New Hampshire’s only nonprofit, online news outlet dedicated to reporting ethical, unbiased news and diverse opinions and columns.